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Friday, April 8, 2011

Recently read: "The Thirty-Nine Steps" by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Recently, we watched a BBC produced version of this story on our local PBS station.  Since we had already seen the Hitchcock version, and there were significant differences, I wanted to see how the original story compared.

As expected, there are major changes.  In all, mining engineer Richard Hannay is in London when he encounters a spy.  In the book it's 1914, and Hannay (an expatriate Scot) is asked for help by free lance spy Franklin Scudder, who has uncovered a plot to kill the Greek Premier and steal the British war plans.  After Scudder is murdered, and Hannay must flee, since he would be suspected.  With him he has Scudder notes, in a cipher.

Hannay decides to continue Scudder work, and makes his way to Scotland.  Much of the book has him traveling back and forth, using various disguises, as he breaks the cipher in the notes and begins to understand the plot, which includes the group "Black Stone" and something called "Thirty-nine Steps".  He is chased around the moors by his pursers using foot, cars and even an aeroplane.  He takes refugee in a cottage owned by an eldery man, who he finds is one of the enemy.  Imprisoned, he makes his escape using his mining experience, by building a bomb.

Through the help of a naive local politician, he meets Sir Walter Bullivant from the Foreign Office.  While at Sir Walter's house, they find that the Greek Premier Karolides has been assassinated.  Later, while a military meeting is going on, Hannay cannot shake the notice that more is happening.  He sees one of his former pursers, masquerading  as the First Sea Lord, leaving the meeting, Hannay warns Sir Walter  that the man, who has the all important British war preparation information, is a spy.  Guessing that "the thirty-nine steps" might refers to the landing point from which the spy might flee England, Hannay, which the military's help, try to determine the location.

Finally, deciding the the coastal town in Kent is the best answer, they find a house with a path down the cliff to the beach; the path has thirty-nine steps.  There's also a yacht offshore.  Hannay, visiting the villa, matches wit with the three there, and there is eventually a struggle with two of the three captured.  The third flees to the yahtch, which in the meantime has been seized by the authorities.

The book was interesting, being an early example of the "man on the run" thriller, and also a fairly early spy novel.  There's now been at least five filmed versions (with a another one, directed by Robert Towne, announced but without significant progress).  Buchan returned to the character four more times, with two books set during WWI (at the end of this book, Hannay joins the army), and two post war.  In this book, Hannay is very much a man with wits and skills (I see echos  of this sort of character later in Heinlein's "competent man").  The book does have an absence of female characters (so of course, all the film versions add a female companion).


  1. I recently read the book too because I am seeing the play version this week and I wanted to be familiar with the story. The play, from what I hear, is very close to the Hitchcock movie, which is not very close to the book. I thought the book was okay, but rather boring. Good thing it was short.

  2. I've heard the play is similar to Hitchcock (which I love). I think the book is a bit slow, but have to remember when it was written.